Barcelona vs Porto: Porto show the way to beat Barca…almost!

How to beat Barcelona? That has been one of the questions of the summer (or even of the last couple of season) and will be asked countless times this season. In the 2011 UEFA Super Cup, despite losing 0-2, FC Porto showed us how Barca can be neutralised.

OK, Porto actually lost the game, but there were some promising signs throughout the game.

The game finished 2-0 to Barcelona, with Barca having 9 shots, 5 on target, to Porto’s 8 shots, 2 on target. However, Porto were reduced to 10 men in the 86th minute with the score still 1-0, and then had another man sent off on 90 minutes. At that point, Barca had managed 7 shots, with 3 on target. The first goal also was a bit misfortunate (despite in part being caused by the Barca press), with Fredy Guarin passing the ball towards Sapunaru, who didnt anticipate the pass and missed the ball, which then rolled on to Leo Messi, who was 8 yards behind the defence and rounded the keeper to slot away.

There are two general views to playing Barca (or pretty much any team for that matter) – drop off and sit deep, or push on and press them. Porto took the second option here which largely worked quite well.

Before the first goal on 38 minutes, Barca had only had 2 shots, both off target (although it is fair to say they could have scored at least one – getting in behind the high Porto line both occasions).

Porto prevented Barca entering their defensive third for 12 minutes, from 16:45 on the clock until 28:20.

There were plenty of positives to take from the display of FC Porto, and here I will look at how they attempted to neutralise Barca and how they looked to attack them, how this differed to Man Utd’s attempt in last seasons Champions League final, and then a general look at how different formations faired against Barca last season.


In this shot you can see the line ups of both sides:

Barca with their usual 4-3-3, full backs moved up, one midfielder deeper than the other two, two wide forwards pushed on with Messi dropping off.

FC Porto played a 4-3-3 (in possession) / 4-5-1 (out of possession) combination, flat back line, one midfielder deeper than the other two. Note the high line (45 metres from goal).

In the image below you can see the flat back 4 (red), midfield triangle (blue) and two wide men tucked back (pink). Barca have the two wide forwards high up (yellow), Messi dropping off (light blue), two midfielders close together (dark red) and full backs pushed up (green):

Porto always looked to keep the same shape to negate Barca:

Porto Stay Compact with High Line

Porto stayed very compact, trying to keep the 4 man defence and 5 man midfield within 15 metres. Two years ago Inter did this with a very deep (on the edge of the 18 yard box) line, however here Porto chose to keep a high line, in this picture around 32 metres up the pitch.

Again Porto are holding a high line some 40 metres from goal, and keeping less than 20 metres between the lines.

Porto Press Very Well

This shot shows the shape of the teams again, and highlights the way Porto countered Barca: first man pressure on the ball, remaining midfield two picking up Barca’s two free midfielders (blue triangle), two wide players picking up the two full backs (pink).

The pressure on the ball and the immediate passing options allows the back 4 to stay high and compact, leaving the furthest wide player (off the bottom of the shot) and meaning they don’t have to immediately worry about Messi at this moment in time.

In the above shot you can see Porto putting immediate pressure on the ball and the first option (red arrows), the forward retreating to double up on the ball (yellow), full back tightly marking the wide forward (blue). The right sided midfielder is ready to close down deepest Barca midfielder (pink arrow) with Porto’s right sided wide man (pink line) tucked in to help out. Porto’s defensive midfielder (light blue) is free to cover space.

Three minutes earlier, and more or less the exact same situation:

Here you again see the pressing action further up the pitch. One player closing the ball, another closing the first passing option, the forward coming back to double up on ball, midfielder in centre of picture picking up Barca player, Porto left back pushed on to Barca wide forward, who has dropped off.

Again the defence can hold a high line due to the pressure on the ball, also helping to stay compact. Porto’s right sided wide player (Hulk) here has tucked in on to Iniesta, and Porto’s defensive midfielder is again marking the space, in front of Messi.

The only two free players are the two left sided defenders, which can’t be immediately reached here, and if they are found would give Porto time to adjust.

Here you see two players (red) closing the ball, forcing the player to go backwards. The third player (blue arrows) is ready to either close the ball where it is, or follow the pass (yellow arrow). Barca’s 3 forwards are all tightly marked (yellow lines).

Porto Also Know When to Drop

When a team plays high pressure, they must also know when it is not appropriate and make the decision to drop off and conserve energy.

Here the ball has been played in to the goalkeeper Valdes (green arrow):

If the Porto forward (Kleber) chose to close Valdes down (blue arrow) he would be wasting his energy as there is an easy pass (yellow) out to Abidal. Many players would do this in vain, and then again chase out to Abidal who would easily move the ball on. Instead he chooses to retreat (red arrow) and regain his position.

Getting Numbers Around the Ball

To aid the chances of winning the ball back, Porto looked to gain numerical advantage around the ball:

Here three blue players were closing down the first Barca player (green). Note the incoming red arrow player also moving to put pressure on the ball.

At every opportunity looking to put two-man pressure on the ball (blue):

And again moving to double up:

Below shows the first man pressure (blue), with the players working hard to retreat (yellow). Note again the high line (red), and nearest option being marked (green):

When Arsenal played Barca in last season’s Last 16, they used the same tactics:

The options available have been limited by the positions Arsenal players take up. The ball comes from Pique in to the midfielder (red arrow) who, being closely marked (red line) releases to deeper midfielder (yellow arrow). Two Arsenal players (blue and pink) anticipate the situation and close him down, winning the ball. This move leads on to the bottom picture under the “Attacking Space Behind Full Backs” section below, and resulted in an Arsenal goal.

Forcing Players into Dead End

Here Iniesta (yellow arrow) wanted to move inside, at which time he was met by two Porto players (red) closing him down, trapping him. Note covering defender in pink, and blue midfielder available as a passing option if the ball is won.

Anticipating the Play

Wait for players like Messi to receive the ball and come at you and they are very difficult to stop. Throughout the game Porto anticipated the pass, jumping in to steal the ball and initiate the attack:

Pressure on Valdes

Victor Valdes is often praised for his ball playing abilities, however it is notable how often he will put a ball astray if he is pressured, and this is something Porto utilised in this game.

In this moment of play, he has received the ball and has an outball to the right sided defender, however due to the pressure from the Porto forward, the ball follows the yellow line out of play:

The same thing happened against Man Utd in the 2011 Champions League final:

Looking at Valdes’ passing charts for last years Champions League knockout games, this happened at least once in nearly every game (6 out of 7 games):

Man Utd – N – Final: 1 x to the left
Real – A – SF: 1 x right
Real – H – SF: 1 x left, 1 x right
Shakhtar – H – QF: 1 x left
Shakhtar – A – QF: 1 x right
Arsenal – A – L16: 2 x left, 2 x right
Arsenal – H – L16: 0

And those are just the ones out of play – the same thing also happens several times in most games when he is put under pressure, hitting a ball towards either of the full backs, but the ball remains in play with the opposition.

Attacking Space Behind Full Backs

As can be seen from the ‘formations’ images at the top, the Barca full backs are pretty much always pushed on in possession, which leads to space for the opposition on their positive transition. This is something Porto looked to take advantage of, here with the ball coming from a centre back up to the forward, who is looking to flick it on to the wide left forward (red arrow) moving in behind Alves (green):

And again, the ball is flicked on (yellow) into the space behind Alves (blue):

Real Madrid used the same tactics last season, here with both full backs (red) caught high up, with two Real players (blue) looking to exploit (this move resulted in a Madrid goal):

And Arsenal find themselves in the same situation (following on from the last image under “Numbers around the ball” above) – full backs (pink) higher up the pitch, leaving space to be exploited by the two blue runs. This move resulted in an Arsenal goal:

Switching Play in Possession

The positive transition playing against Barcelona is very difficult due to the way in which Barca high pressure the ball. However the way around this is to move the ball quickly and switch play to the opposite side of the pitch.

In the above image the ball is moved quickly from the right side, through the centre first time out to the left to exploit the space marked in red. Note the space behind the defence marked green, which would be the first option, however this has been restricted by two pressing Barca players (blue) so the only option is to the left.

Again below, here the ball comes from the left through the centre out to the red marked space on the left. Note how there would be a momentary 2 v 1 in Porto’s favour, as opposed to a 5 v 6 against if kept on the right:

What Went Wrong for Man Utd?

Now we have seen how Porto played, lets look at why Manchester United were so resoundly beaten in the 2011 Final.


Barca (blue lines) used their familiar shape, whilst Man Utd (red lines) played largely a 4-4-2, with Rooney dropping off when defending to become a 4-4-1-1:

Poor Shape

As can be seen in most of the pictures above, Porto retained the same basic shape throughout, occupying space and allowing cohesive pressing. Man Utd simply did not do this well enough.

Here you can see Rooney has dropped deeper to occupy Busquets (green). However, Giggs (red) is out of position, leaving space in midfield (blue line). Notice the flat lines compared to Porto:

In the image below, Rooney has come wide left, but Giggs (supposed to be central midfield) is again caught high up, along with Valencia (top of picture). Park (left sided midfielder) and Carrick (central) are left with too much space to occupy:

Below both Carrick, Giggs and Evra (left back) have been drawn to Messi, however this has left big space in the middle, with Valencia slow to recover, and an easy pass (yellow) to put Barca through:

Poor Pressure

Leading on from the above, Man Utd did not pressure Barca well enough.

Here Carrick is standing some 5-6 yards off Xavi. Rooney has occupied Busquets (centre circle), but there is an easy ball (yellow) in to Mascherano:

Again here there is no one closing the ball, with Park and Carrick (blue) the only central players. There are 3 Barca players left unmarked in the centre:

Not Compact Enough and Defence too Deep

It can be argued if the defence was deliberately playing deep, or if they were dropping off due to the lack of pressure on the ball. However this was part of the reason they were not compact enough, and simply too open. The midfield also played too flat and too far in front of the defence.

The back four (red) are sufficiently close to each other, however the midfield (blue) is spread right across the pitch, in a flat line, leaving space between the lines, and not shutting down the Barca midfielders:

Again, two flat lines have left space (red box) between, here for Xavi, with no first man pressure on the ball. Note how the back line has dropped deeper due to the lack of pressure on the ball:

Numerous times this happened, allowing players like Messi to receive the ball in the ‘red zone’, get turned and attack the back line:

Above, Vidic is drawn to the ball (green) going 1 v 1 with Messi, and leaving big space behind, not being covered by Evra.

Leaving Xavi Too Much Space

In the image below, the defence is off the right hand side of the screen, leaving massive space in between the lines for Messi, and, with the midfield standing off, Xavi has plenty of time on the ball to play the pass in to that space between Carrick and Giggs, or an alternative ball along the yellow arrow.

Again, no player close to Xavi. Here he can take his pick of any of the 4 yellow passes:

Little wonder he finished the game with an unbelievable 148 passes (with 141 finding a team mate)!


Inter showed two years ago that one way is to sit deep and stay tight, however this gives little chances when going forward.

In summary, I believe the best way to play Barca can be put in 11 points:

  • Use a midfield triangle
  • Ensure wide players play their part in pressing
  • Stay compact, both vertical and horizontal
  • Always press the ball with the first man
  • Press as a unit, occupying all available passing options
  • Get numbers around the ball, including an immediate free passing option should the ball be won
  • Know when to drop off when pressing is not the best choice
  • Anticipate the play, knowing when to steal and preventing players turning
  • Pressure Valdes and the nearest options to force mistakes
  • Attack the space behind the full backs on positive transitions
  • Switch play quickly on positive transitions

2010/11 Opposition Formations Review

Finally, I thought it would be interesting to take a statistical look at the formations teams used last season to try to stop Barca.

Obviously this doesn’t factor in Guardiola changing his tactics to adapt to the opposition, but it does provide a basic overall statistical review.

Formations taken from

In all competitions during 2010/11, Barca lost 6 games and drew 12. As can be seen above, the most common opposition formation for their defeats was 4-2-3-1, with this featuring 4 times, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 once each.

For the draws, it’s a similar story, with 4-2-3-1 featuring 6 times, 4-3-3 / 4-5-1 featuring 2 times, and 4-4-2 featuring 4 times.

If we conclude that 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 are all just variations on the same tactic, or what we shall call ‘3 central midfielder’ formations, they accounted for 5 Barca defeats and 8 draws, compared to 1 defeat and 4 draws for ‘2 central midfielder’ formations.

However, this doesn’t take into account the total number of times Barca faced the various formations, so lets look at that (and just looking at La Liga / Champions League games this time):

(Table shows Barcelona results, goals scored and conceded, Barca win rate and goal ratios)

During 2010/11 in La Liga and the Champions League, Barca faced 9 different formations, with the results shown above.

To make comparison a little easier, lets group the formations together, assuming 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 are similar (containing 2 central midfielders, with no one in the defensive hole), with 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 / 4-5-1 / 4-1-4-1 grouped (typically 3 central midfielders, with at least one player in the defensive hole). You could argue about 4-2-3-1, but simply put it can change between the defensive and offensive stages from 4-5-1 to a 4-3-3 with the triangle inverted.

5-3-2 and 5-4-1 we shall group as ‘Other’ formations, featuring a fairly uncommon 5 man defence, and we shall also take the one time a 4-3-1-2 was used. This would most likely be a diamond, and lacking the overall width, but could be played in any number of ways.

So we can see against ‘3 midfielder’ formations, Barca fare below average, winning 5% fewer games, with a goal advantage of 1.7 goals compared to 1.9 on average.

Against ‘2 midfielder’ formations, the win rate is higher, and no games are lost. The goal advantage is 1.8.

5 man defence formations are obviously a bad idea as they just invite pressure with no cover from the midfield.


From this brief and simple analysis, there is further evidence that 4-3-3 / 4-5-1 is the formation to use against Barca, and any other formation that doesnt compete in the central areas and offer protection to the defence can be deemed almost suicidal!

Keywords: Barcelona, Barca, Porto, Man Utd, football tactics, team tactics, champions league, soccer tactics, team analysis, player analysis, formations, 4-3-3, 4-4-2


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

One response to “Barcelona vs Porto: Porto show the way to beat Barca…almost!”

  1. axxgeegunners says :

    Nice! Really in-depth. Well done!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: